Guardian Instinct Problems

A good resource:Scaredy Dog! Understanding & Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog

Your dog turns a year and a half and it goes from being a normal, well-adjusted puppy to hell on wheels in no time flat. What did you do wrong?

Maybe nothing and maybe everything.

Guardian instinct tends to kick in as a dog exits puppyhood, and for owners with a dog who has an inappropriate amount of guardian instinct, possibly mixed with some fear aggression, this can be a very unhappy transition.

Why’s My Dog So Mean All of a Sudden?

In puppyhood, a dog tends to exhibit a shy reaction to threatening stimuli because it lacks the confidence to handle the situation. You’ll see this in shying away from things they’ve not previously encountered, cowering behind you, etc. As a dog comes into its own, it starts to want to handle situations that make it uncomfortable, but just like a teenager, its instincts may not be the soundest.

It may look bad, or it may just be an annoyance, but if you remember that your dog, is, essentially experiencing a new independence and learning how to deal with stimuli it can’t control, you can be there to help shape that reaction.

Basically – your dog is in a state of heightened emotion and it reacts as such. Your job is to teach it to self sooth in the situation that causes that by reframing the situation into a calm and peaceful one for the dog, over and over until eventually the dog doesn’t need your help.

What Should You Not Do?

Don’t  react aggressively to your dog – it is, essentially, a kid and you raining hell upon it while it’s still in the throes of fear or protection make that part of the experience. You need to be a calming presence to your dog.  Exacerbating the dog’s negative emotions can lead to fear aggression, a much harder thing to fix/manage.

Don’t laugh off your dog’s reactions – they are potentially dangerous to all parties involved if handled inappropriately.  Recognize your dog has this reaction and actively seek to avoid situations in which that reaction occurs without the ability to peacefully control it (ie, this is not a great time for off-leash walks or leaving your dog at home to bark hysterically at everything that passes by while you are powerless to help him or her)

Don’t sequester your dog from activities that might stimulate this behavior. Avoidance won’t work – your dog needs constant, safe exposure to the triggers that cause the behavior, but do so in controlled ways so you can help the dog feel safe and learn what to respond to and how. This means don’t permanently lock him or her in the backyard if he barks in the front yard’s windows or not taking him on walks. It does NOT mean removing him or her from a situation he can’t handle yet, it’s okay to do that.

Don’t take risks. If your dog is exhibiting behaviors against people or dogs, don’t test him or her. For the moment, your dog is not friendly and you should not hope/expect him or her to be so. If people ask, say so. It’s okay, no one judges you for protecting your dog and them.

What Should You Do?

Do react calmly – remind yourself that your dog has feelings he or she doesn’t understand that is leading to this behavior. Apologize if aggression is directed at someone, but do not get emotionally balled up about it – your dog will read that and associate your emotion with the negative emotion he or she already feels.

Do restrict freedoms during this period so that the situations, when they happen, are entirely under your control. If your dog randomly starts showing protection instinct to people on walks (a common leash aggression issue), you need to be prepared to handle it both so you don’t over react and so the dog has a chance to react in a desirable way.

Identify triggers. Sometimes things are subtle, like how your dog’s eyes get wider even though everything else looks fine. It takes a long time to understand what your dog is doing just in terms of getting to know it, and even more so in dealing with a behavior you might not understand. Give yourself time to do this – it can take a while. And, in the meantime, do everything you can to avoid triggering things if you don’t know what’s causing it.

Make a plan of attack. Your dog is reacting like that because of classic stimulus-response. “Threatening situation! I must react!” Your job is to teach your dog, calmly and lovingly that, no, you don’t have to react. If your dog is on leash on a walk, you are to turn the other direction and teach the dog to move out of the stressful space, rewarding with calm and loving praise when the dog relaxes. If your dog is defending your home, call your dog away from the fence or window and when they do, calmly reward him or her. Do not OVEREXCITE your dog by praising, offering awesome treats, or in anyway throwing a party for him or her  in these reward situations – your dog is in a heightened emotional state and you want to teach them to feel calm in those situations.

It takes time, but helping your dog in this way can result in an appropriate guardian that you can trust. It will take less time if your dog is younger and you hit it right away, but you can still make mistakes well into adulthood and turn the situation around as long as you are:

  1. Calm.
  2. Loving.
  3. Patient.

Realistic with your expectations at each step.

Good luck!

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